STRATFORD - Nestled in the southwest corner of Hamilton County a stone's throw from the Webster County border, the community of Stratford is holding its own and growing against the negative trends that often plague small towns.
Paul Nielsen purchased Stratford Hardware three years ago.
He said that while times have been difficult, "we're holding our own."
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Paul Nielsen, owner of Stratford Hardware and Shakespeare Stitch, gets a little help from his dog Chloe before mixing up some custom paint colors.
In his own business, he's been able to restock some formerly overlooked areas such as V-belts for farm equipment and an update to his electrical equipment.
He's also added a small toy department.
"We try to rotate for the season," he said.
While he knows he can't compete with big-box retailers in larger markets, he's able to offer something to the residents of Stratford that he says those stores can't.
"I have the ability to provide a local convenience," he said. "I try to have what they need."
He sees signs of growth in the community.
"The house market has turned around," he said. "We had two or three homes sold."
He said that's good for the community - it means new residents are moving in.
Stratford has also added a new business. A fitness center is now open for business a few door away, although Nielsen said he has his own regimen. Chloe, his dog keeps him moving.
"I've got my fitness expert," he said.
He's also hopeful that plans for nearby wind turbines will help the community.
"That would give a boost," he said. "I hope that comes through."
Kelli Smith is manager of the Stratford Grocery Store. She is hoping that the community can keep growing and expanding.
"It depends on the economy," she said.
She likes the community.
"We have good friendly people," she said. "I get to know most of my regular customers."
She's also seeing a slight shift in the community's demographic - a few more young people with families.
"We are starting to see that," she said. "It's just a matter of keeping them."
One plus, Smith said, is that Stratford still has an open school, which helps keep young families and jobs, in town.
She said the key to keeping the community going is for those who live there to get involved and support each other.
"Everybody pulls together," she said, "and helps support the small businesses we have."
Corina Garrels has made a success of her restaurant, Corina's Cafe.
"It's been just over a year," she said. "It's been really good."
Garrels said she has regular customers and has enjoyed the time she spends with them.
"You get a chance to know everybody," she said.
She got some plans for local residents, including cribbage nights.
"It will help get people out to mingle and avoid the winter blues," she said.
She said she's seeing some population growth too and likes what she sees up and down the street.
"We've doing good," she said of Stratford. "We have a little bit of everything."
Mike Nepereny is the mayor of Stratford, with two years left on his third term.
He lists several advantages of his community.
"It's small enough you can know everybody here," he said.
He's also proud of the recently completed water treatment plant and said he's happy the school remains as a source of employment and as an attraction to families.
He said he encourages local shopping.
"We want to keep the businesses that are here, here," he said.
He said the town faces challenges but that he's optimistic about the future.
Dane Haman, Chase Haman and John Daleske share that as well.
They grew up in the Stratford area and said they enjoy the small-town atmosphere and the sense of community.